Two Colombian girls were detained and deported from Israel recently while trying to visit their mother, who is an Orthodox convert to Judaism and an Israeli citizen.
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The family says the sisters were held in custody at Ben-Gurion International Airport and interrogated for eight hours, before being put on a return flight. They were not permitted to see either their mother or baby sister, who had come to the airport to collect them.
Sofia Castrillon Alvarez, 15, and Luz Adela Castrillon, 12, landed in Tel Aviv at 10 P.M. on November 29, following a 24-hour trip from Bogotá with a stopover in Madrid.
Their mother, Sarah Debora Meyer, along with her second husband Gerard Meyer and their newborn daughter Rachel, were waiting for them at the airport. More than 90 minutes later, when there was no sign of them, Sarah phoned Sofia and learned that the girls had been detained at immigration and would be sent back to Colombia early the next morning.
According to Gerard Meyer (who goes by the name Abraham Gerard Meyer in Israel), an immigration official told his wife that she would not be able to see her daughters even briefly before they boarded the flight back, “because she might create a scene.”
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The Interior Ministry told Haaretz in response that the girls were barred from entering Israel because the family had only put in an official application for a visa a few days earlier, thereby presenting the authorities with “facts on the ground.”
Yet a detailed timeline of events produced by the family shows the Meyers made numerous visits to the ministry months before the planned trip, trying to ascertain what special measures, if any, were required to ensure the girls could enter Israel without any problems.
On more than one occasion, the family say, they were told that no special entry permits were required because the girls were minors and entitled to visit their mother. On other occasions, they were asked to produce specific documents, which they say they did.
In their quest to obtain information and undertake what was required of them, the couple paid no fewer than seven separate visits to ministry offices between August and late November.
They say they never received a clear answer to their questions. Nor do they know what, if any, documents were missing from the files they had submitted requesting visas for the girls. They say they produced all the documents requested of them in due time.
In its response, the Interior Ministry said that “heavy suspicions” were raised during the airport interrogation that the girls planned to stay in Israel permanently rather than just visit.
But Nicole Maor, an attorney with the Israel Religious Action Center – a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to converts and immigrants – says Israeli law allows children of converts to join their immigrant parents even if they have not themselves converted.
“It is inconceivable that the Interior Ministry prevents the entry of minors to Israel to see their parents who are Israeli citizens, claiming that the formal procedures haven't been completed and citing suspicions that they would stay in Israel when they know, or should know, that these children are fully entitled to stay,” she said.
“This is especially true when the parents visited the ministry more than half a dozen times and told officials exactly when the children were expected to arrive in the country. The trauma caused to these children is irreversible and completely unconscionable,” Maor added.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said: “Let the mother submit a proper request to have her children live with her here, and it will be reviewed.”
Gerard Meyer, a French-born Jew with U.S. and Israeli citizenship, is a psychologist. His Colombian-born wife was previously married and has three children from her first marriage – Sofia and Luz Adela, and an 18-year-old son, Juan Manuel. The couple met in Pittsburgh four years ago and then moved to Colombia, from where they immigrated to Israel in March. Sarah Debora Meyer converted three years ago while they were living in Colombia.
Last July, the two daughters visited Israel for several weeks to see their mother and her new family. Although the Meyers were informed that tourists from Colombia do not require visas, the two girls were stopped at the airport and subjected to intense interrogation before being released.
To prevent a similar experience in November, the Meyers decided to seek guidance from the Interior Ministry – first through its offices in Beit Shemesh (where they live) and then, when they were unable to receive adequate responses to their questions, from its Jerusalem offices.
All their attempts to obtain information and answers failed, the family said.
Sofia Castrillon Alvarez had planned to spend two months in Israel, coinciding with her summer break in Colombia. Luz Adela Castrillon, meanwhile, had received permission from a judge in Colombia to spend a year in the custody of her mother in Israel. The ministry was provided with a copy of the judge’s ruling translated into Hebrew.
Gerard Meyer described the family’s dealings with the ministry as “a nightmare.”
“We were treated like criminals,” he told Haaretz. “This is not the way Jews should be treating Jews.”
He said that not only had the family lost the money it spent on the tickets for the two girls, but also thousands of shekels it paid to have documents couriered to Israel and then translated into Hebrew.
The family is now considering leaving Israel, he said.
“We feel we are caught between a rock and a hard place. If the girls cannot visit us here, it will be difficult for us to continue to stay in the country,” he said.
Rabbi Seth Farber, the founder and executive director of ITIM – an organization that helps immigrants and converts struggling with Israel’s bureaucracy – said in response: “The Interior Ministry is responsible for protecting the borders of Israel but equally responsible for protecting the fragile relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
“This case appears to be a prime example of bureaucratic bungling that has gotten in the way of the sensitive issue of the welfare of converts,” he added. “We call upon the ministry to remove unnecessary obstacles and be sensitive to the Jewish tradition that demands from us all to help the vulnerable.”